It's the time of year to take stock of the things that matter most to us, so while others spend these final days of 2015 confessing hidden feelings for old friends or redoubling their charitable efforts, I've been obsessing more than ever over Charlie Blackmon. Specifically, because it's my perpetual hangup and the thing that first grabbed me about Blackmon, I've been digging into what I consider the most remarkable transformation of 2015: Blackmon’s plate approach.
You need to know a few things:
- League wide, the rate of swings on the first pitch in MLB rose to 28.9 percent in 2015, from 27.4 percent in 2014.
- The league-wide swing rate on all pitches also rose, from 46.6 percent to 47.3 percent.
- The contact rate on all of those swings dropped from 77.5 percent to an even 77.0 percent.
You need to know that, because knowing it highlights Blackmon’s uniqueness. Here are Blackmon’s career swing, first-pitch swing, and contact rates, through 2014, and the 2014 numbers in isolation:
- Career: 51.9 percent swings on all pitches, 27.6 percent on first pitches, 83.4 percent contact on those swings
- 2014: 52.7 percent swings, 29.7 percent on first pitches, 83.3 percent contact
In 2015, two of those three numbers changed radically:
- 2015: 43.0 percent swings, 8.0 percent on first pitches, 84.0 percent contact
That's wild. At a time when the only mechanism that seems able to shake loose some runs for a league previously starved for offense is to attack pitchers early in the count and trade on-base percentage for slugging, Blackmon just turned in career highs in both walk rate and isolated power, without becoming vulnerable to strikeouts. There's danger in looking at the raw numbers with any Rockies hitter: An average hitter in Blackmon’s mix of run environments in 2015 would have had a .346 OBP, and Blackmon himself had a .347 mark. Still, he took huge forward strides as an OBP threat, and that was crucial, since Blackmon was the Rockies’ leadoff hitter all season. He had been in 2014, too, but was nowhere near as effective in that role. Perhaps the most impressive part of his metamorphosis is that he changed in response to the need for something different than his old approach could offer.
Now, though, begins the parade of disclaimers and caveats. One: the Coors Field factor. It's not as simple as adjusting Blackmon’s raw stats for the universal impact of calling Colorado home. There's a chance that Blackmon’s peculiar approach only works so well because of his home park, and if that's true, we need to know. Indeed, his road strikeout rate (20.5 percent) was over half again as high as his home strikeout rate (12.7 percent). The overall numbers were, if anything, even more striking:
- Home: .331/.390/.500 in 355 PA
- Away: .238/.300/.395 in 327 PA
It seems that the lower likelihood of swinging and missing at Coors Field gives at least some cushion for an exceptionally patient approach like the one Blackmon adopted in 2015. It's also clear, digging deeper into Blackmon’s splits, that there's as much passivity as there is patience in his current plan of action. Consider:
- After 3-1: .194/.528/.355 in 53 PA, 67 sOPS+
- After 0-2: .207/.250/.339 in 128 PA, 156 sOPS+
- Ahead in Count: .283/.427/.467 in 235 PA, 86 sOPS+
- Even Count: .295/.312/.425 in 203 PA, 111 sOPS+
- Behind in Count: .283/.299/.456 in 244 PA, 188 sOPS+
That's jarring, given that league-wide, the last eight seasons are the eight in which being ahead in the count has mattered the most for batters. It signifies that Blackmon is either fundamentally deficient at using the count as leverage and unable to tap into any more power than he's already demonstrated, or trading the ability to do those things for the increase in OBP he gets from his newly patient approach.
So it's not perfect, and for Blackmon, maybe it never will be. He will turn 30 this July, and even apparently wise adjustments like the one he made this season will come at an ever-rising cost from here on out. Still, if you're one of those (like me) who fears for the future of sustainable, OBP-driven offense, there's a new hope, and his name is Charlie Blackmon.
Thank you for reading
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